Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hanlin Tea Room (II): Vetting The Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

After my first visit to Hanlin Tea Room I couldn't let more than a week go by without returning to try the Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup. TWBNS is a noodle soup genre with a cult following that I'm always looking to collect more data points on; I've never been to Taiwan (or Monterey Park, for that matter) and I would like some day to have confidence in my ability to recognize a "good" Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup when I see (and taste) one.  Since Hanlin Tea Room is a Taiwan-based chain of some note, it was reasonable to assume it might provide a clue or two.

On a quiet Sunday mid-afternoon, far from the madding crowd at the Pride Parade, I settled into a chair at a two-top in the side dining room and ordered my Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup. Eschewing an appetizer on this occasion, I instead splurged on a pot of one of the more pricey "Taiwan Scholar's Teas." My choice was a nutty Biluochun. Biluochun happens to be my second favorite tea after Dragonwell, and is generally harder to find.

When my soup arrived, I was surprised (but not disappointed) to discover that it came with the same Iron Goddess Tea-infused noodles that I went the previous week to investigate; a discussion with my then server had left me with the impression that the TWBNS came with conventional (wheat only) noodles. The noodles rested in a dark, tomato-less and beefy broth that inched toward the spicy, rather than the medicinal end of the Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup broth spectrum, but not so much as to cause discomfort for any but the most spice-averse slurpers.  The cushion of noodles supported a full meal's worth of meltingly tender chunks of beef brisket with just enough fat on them, as well as some slices of carrots and daikon radish.

If my bowl of soup had one fault, it was that the noodles were slightly over-cooked and  tended toward mushiness as I got close to the bottom of the bowl; hopefully this was a one-off thing -- I know from my previous visit that they do know how to cook these noodles. The unctuous yet slightly sassy broth, beef chunks and robust noodles put this soup squarely in the comfort food category, which, I suppose, has something to do with what classic Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup is all about. I'll gladly return for this soup; it and a small appetizer or two will do nicely as a meal, even dinner. Now just wait until they are licensed to sell beer!

Where slurped: Hanlin Tea Room, 809 Kearny St., San Francisco

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Waiter, There's An Iron Goddess In My Noodles! (At Hanlin Tea Room)

Hanlin Tea Room, a Taiwanese chain which  originated in Tainan, opened its San Francisco branch today in the commodious space at the corner of Jackson and Kearny Streets once intended for Ten Ren's Tii Restaurant and Tii Cafe. Hanlin claims to be "The first store to sell milk tea with tapioca pearls in Taiwan" but it is much more than a boba joint. It's a casually elegant eatery with a range of fine teas (available by the pot or iced), Taiwanese style "small eats" and more elaborate lunch and dinner fare.

When I arrived there around 3:00 PM on their first day of business, there was a cluster of people gathered by the door for their opening promotion of "buy one get one free" boba drinks, but also a respectable showing of sit-down diners in a main dining area).  I was led to an adjoining room (which once had a short life as the Tii Cafe but has been re-integrated with the main area. I pored over the menu, but I already had a mission for being there: prominent on Hanlin's website and featured in their elaborate in-house menu, but tucked away in a small corner of their paper takeaway menu was a novelty item, "Tea Noodles" (Cha Mian).

According to Hanlin Tea Room's promotional materials, development of their tea noodles required studying the procedure in Japan, and testing of various teas for suitability; they finally settled on an aromatic Tie Guanyin ("Iron Goddess") tea for this purpose. There are three tea noodle variants on Hanlin's menu: Pork Chop Noodles, Fried Chicken Noodles and Chicken Leg Noodles. In actuality, the meat "toppings" are side dishes, and the sole visible protein in bowl as served is a herd-boiled "tea" egg which tastes of pu'er tea.

I ordered the "pork chop" noodles and a side order of "hot & spicy tofu" which seemed the next best thing to stinky tofu, which they don't offer (discretion is the greater part of valor), and an iced jade green tea. The timing of my meal seemed both approprate and reasonable.  First came the ice tea, then the appetizer, and finally the noodles.  The tea noodles were distinctly greenish, though not quite so green as spinach noodles, thick, and quite wabe. They were obviously hand-made, whether on the premises or not, judging from their irregularity. I enjoyed the noodles' robust chewiness, but to tell the truth, I couldn't really detect the Iron Goddess flavor, not that I have a great tea palate. What came through was sort of a matcha tea bitternesss, which is not to say that there was anything unpleasant about it.  The broth my noodles were served in was deep, meaty-rich, and very onion-y. It was pork-based, according to my server (the other two options come with a chicken-based broth).

My "pork chop" was in fact a breaded and fried pork cutlet, tonkatsu-style, sliced for convenince.  It was  tender, juicy and tasty, but had little connection to the noodle soup, other than a pork-flavor "theme:" I wondered later if it weren't meant to be tossed into the soup.

An overall impression I formed of this place was that the main dishes are on the pricey side, mostly upwards of $15 but the appetizers and the tea pot prices quite reaonable.  My "Pork Chop Noodles" was $15 but my tofu appetizer (which I enjoyed very much) only $4.  Hanlin Tea Room also offers a Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup for $16 which I will have to vet out of curiosity, but in general I'll probably adopt a strategy of going to Hanlin at off-peak times and chilling out with a pot of tea and a couple of appetizers while I diddle my devices. (Which reminds me, I forgot to check if they have live wi-fi.)

Where slurped: Hanlin Tea Room, 809 Kearny St., San Francisco

Source: Hanlin Tea Room Website

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Namesake Bowl From Newly Opened Chongqing Xiao Mian Brings Quality And Quantity

Chongqing Xiao Mian is the sixth effort by the ex-Z&Y pair that began by transforming The Pot Sticker into (now defunct) "Ma La Yi Pin" and later took over the venerable Uncle's Cafe (now Spicy King) down the street on Waverly Place. They also operate Spicy Queen in the Richmond, as well as outposts in San Mateo and Newark.  Unlike the other venues, Ma La Yi Pin #6, as its menu dubs it, is from the mian guan (noodle house) mold, focused on noodles and accompanying appetizers and side dishes As such, it is a more inviting place for people like me who fly solo and are just looking for noodles and a nosh without the guilt of occupying a space at a full-service restaurant promoting more elaborate and profitable dishes. In this respect, the Chinese mian guan is really the prototype of the ramen-ya.

Chongqing Xiao Mian was empty when I arrived at 2:00 PM on its opening day, though another couple of tables were filled while I was there. I pretended to study the brief menu, though I almost knew it by heart already, and wouldn't let myself order anything but the house's namesake dish, Chongqing xiao mian, to which I added an order of potstickers for protein. Based on a previous experience at another of the Wu-Du group's properties, I was poised to insist my spicy noodles come to me spicy, but the server had it covered: "It's very spicy," she said, and I assured her that was the way I liked it.

My bowl of Chongqing Xiao Mian did not disappoint. A veritable mountain of extruded fine noodles sat in a pond of chili oil augmented with a number of ground condiments and spices including Sichuan peppercorns, and what appeared to be garlic shoots. It was honestly spicy, eye-watering, nose-running spicy but not so much as to mask a complex flavor profile. The noodles themselves were fresh and al dente, and there was such a quantity of them packed into the bowl that I felt like I had consumed a whole Mission burrito, so sated was I after my meal. This is a bowl I will return for (after vetting some of CQXM's other offering).

As for the potstickers, they were pretty generic in shape, size and flavor, but well cooked with nicely browned facets, and tasty. I'm not sure if they were made in house; I began by asking the server that question, and she initially replied she didn't think they had them today, then checked herself and consulted the chef, who assured her they did. In any event, they filled the bill, providing some needed protein (and unneeded carbohydrate!).

Like some of the group's other branches, Chongqing Xiao Mian offers a whole range of regional noodle styles, including Guilin mi fen, Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles, liang fen, etc. along with other Sichuan classics. With such a range, one tends to be skeptical,  but since this branch is a noodle-focused enterprise I'm hopeful the chef knows what he's doing.

Where Slurped: Chong Qing Xiao Mian, 915 Kearny St., San Francisco

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mohinga Mania Restarted, With A Hearty Bowl At Tender Loving Food

A couple of years go I completed (or so I thought) a mission of sampling all eight versions of mohinga, the catfish chowder considered the national dish of Burma, available in San Francisco proper. It turns out I had missed one which was hiding in plain sight on the menu at T-28, the Chinese/Hong Kongese/Macanese and, apparently, Burmese restaurant on Taraval better known for its Macau Pork Chop Sandwich.  Since then, the boom in Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area has added another four or five versions, so I decided it was high time to resume my Mohinga March.

Mohinga Mania 2.0 begins with a bowl at Tender Loving Food, Burmese restaurant impresario William Lu's contribution to the stomping ground of his salad days, the Tenderloin.  As befits its location, TLF is in rough garb, with most of its exterior signage still identifying it as Pesba's Fried Chicken, and with an interior that makes Yamo look elegant by comparison. There is a poster with food pictures in the front window that seems to identify the establishment as Burmese Gourmet, but by the posted menus inside as well as all the media, it's "Tender Loving Food," and who could improve on that?

Tender Loving Food's version of mohina is not eleganty "plated", i.e. with the respective garnishes carefully arrayed across the top, but what it lacks in beauty it makes up in heartiness. It was probably the thickest version I have encountered, and the most gingery. Part of the heartiness had to do with the quantity of rice vermicelli noodles they managed to pack into a bowl; it was perhaps too noodle-forward for my tastes (and I don't often make that criticism) but it may have been designed with the nutritional needs of the neighborhood in mind. Even Kenny Bania would admit this is a meal. The broth itself was also thick, not overly fishy, and gingery.  Among the solids lurking is its depths were actual ginger slices along with the bits of chick pea fritters and samusa skin. I'm one who likes to chew on the ginger, so I considered the slices as little gifts. Along with the soup came a little container of cracked pepper and a couple of lime wedges.  A squeeze of lime and a pinch of the pepper played nicely against the ginger and rendered the broth at once more sprightly and more complex.

In short, Tender Loving Food serves up a bowl of mohinga that may be a bit wabe but still rises above the coarseness of its environs. Be brave. Be hungry. Go there!

Where slurped: Tender Loving Food, 393 Eddy Street, the Tenderloin, San Francisco.